Know Your Scholars: Forrest Dunbar – Alaska 2005


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 Forrest Dunbar – Alaska 2005

Most of us imagine Alaska in striking reflections of majestic mountains cast in the glass-like plane of crystal clear water, with a panoramic view of raw nature in her most gloriously pristine form, unfettered and seemingly holding a perpetual state of refreshing newness that invigorates our pioneering spirits.  As we envision the sprawling, snow capped wilderness, Alaska taps on our shoulders whispering to the explorer inside us.  Yet few heed the call, save for a brief and well planned vacation because beyond the picturesque mind’s eye conception, other notions cloud our senses about Alaska.  From many a gut wrenching scene etched in our consciousness from Jack London’s classic, The Call of The Wild, to John Krakauer’s, Into The Wild, a riveting yet tragic recounting of Christopher McCandless’s final days in Alaska’s back country, we are left with an impression that gives us pause and perpetuates Alaska’s brutal but intoxicating environmental intrigue – from a safe distance.  The 49th state is, essentially, a stranger to those of us who have never called her home.

A conversation with Forrest Dunbar, however, is like a warm handshake that blasts through the thick ice of misperceptions revealing Alaska’s heart as he intimately knows it.  His genuine homespun appreciation for all of Alaska’s extraordinary assets quickly highlight the value of his state’s uniqueness, while his well informed  global perspective also creates a sense of connection and common ground.

The first years of his life were somewhat distinctive from the majority of his generation, spent in a small orange house built by his dad and grandfather in Alaska’s Klondike:

The first town I lived in as a boy was called Eagle, which sits on the banks of the Yukon River. It was a tiny town of less than 200 people; an old gold-mining settlement in what used to be called the Klondike. We had no running water, and heated the house with a wood stove. One of my more distinct memories, which my mom talks about as one of my idiosyncrasies, involved going to the outhouse in the middle of the night in just my boots and “tighty-whiteys.” It was often forty below, or colder, when I did so.

More from Forrest about those early years:

On my block in Eagle there were three kids my age. One was a girl named Iris, who still lives in Eagle, and works as a wildland firefighter—doing work so physically demanding it would break men twice her size. The other boy, in whose family’s sauna we used to bathe, is today an Assistant Computational Mathematician at the Argonne National Laboratory.  He holds a PhD from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and he does work I frankly do not understand.

 I think about this sometimes.  I lived in a town of two-hundred people with no road access in the winter, and despite all my fancy degrees I wasn’t even the smartest kid on my block.  Not even close.  People drastically underestimate the kind of talent and intelligence sitting out there in the Bush, much of which is never invested in or capitalized.

Forrest is as tangible a representation of Alaska’s astounding human resources, as that colossal mountain-meets-river reflection is of his state’s extraordinary natural splendor.  How fitting, then, that he has decided to make it official.  Even as I write this, Forrest is announcing his campaign for an inaugural run to represent Alaskan voters in the United States Congress!  He does so with an insightful view of the needs of local communities framed with an extremely valuable backdrop of both national and international contexts.

Not yet 30 years old, Forrest Dunbar is an exhilarating blend of youthful idealism and boundless hope for Alaska’s future, along with the well rounded and deeply grounded perspective of the vast landscape of experiences he has already traversed.  No doubt his early childhood adventures left an indelible impression about the life sustaining value of adaptability, resourcefulness and strategic planning as well as provided a plethora of character building blocks that would stand the test of time.  Lessons that have shaped his choices ever since.

Some of those critically important decisions were to seize opportunities that would expand Forrest’s perspective beyond his home state to other parts of the U.S. and abroad.  Even so, his expeditions to obtain greater knowledge and understanding on a global scale were always led by the true north of his internal compass – his home community of Alaska.

When I was a freshman in high school, my best friend got sent away to a fancy boarding school on the East Coast. I wanted to go with him, but my parents couldn’t afford it. Neither me nor my parents had ever had any experience with those kinds of schools, so we didn’t realize there were scholarships available. Instead, my parents suggested I go on a foreign exchange, which was orders of magnitude cheaper. I liked the idea so, at the age of 15, I went on a yearlong AFS exchange to Japan. The decision to go to Japan determined the trajectory of my life.

It was in Japan that I first really experienced the world outside the United States, and started to question a lot of the things I had taken for granted while growing up in Alaska. I decided I wanted to do something with an international component. That, in turn, caused me to apply to international relations programs for college, particularly in Washington, DC, where my parents had once taken my sister and me on a trip.

I was accepted to Georgetown, but again I couldn’t afford it. I had to pay my own way through college, and I told them so, but Georgetown refused to provide me with nearly enough financial aid. I begged, they denied, and so I went to American University, who rolled the dice on a kid from Alaska and gave me a full ride. I will never forget what AU did for me—the opportunity that scholarship provided.

When I first got back from my exchange in Japan, I felt this intense desire to get back out into the world abroad and experience it in some way.  Coincidentally, that semester my science teacher—Mr. Walters—invited a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to come speak to the class about her service. She gave a slideshow describing her time in Nepal, and I decided I was going to go to the Peace Corps too. Five years later, I did.

Ultimately, as his experiences carved away at the marble that would reveal his core values, passions and purpose, Forrest discovered:

I will always have a fascination with international issues, and remain engaged (especially now that I am a soldier), but I decided in the Peace Corps that I wanted to go back to Alaska earlier than I had planned and work on domestic issues, of which we have plenty.

Like most Trumans, I believe, really believe, that public policy and public policy reform can change people’s lives. And right now, our Congress isn’t just getting in the way—you look at something like the cut to food stamps and you realize that real people are going to be hurt by that. It makes me angry. Not so angry that I’m consumed by it or want to run on hatred or fear, but a focused kind of anger that drives me. On the flip side, every once in a while a genuine, positive reform gets through, that’s going to make people’s lives better. When you see that, or especially when you are a part of it, it is just a tremendous joy.

I’m a realist in that I don’t believe we can wave a magic wand and make everything better. The office of the presidency, in particular, is ascribed near-mystical powers by the press that makes it hard for average citizens to understand where the real logjams in the political system lie.  But at the same time, I’m an idealist in that I think most of our problems are either created or exacerbated by Man. If that’s true, then we have the power to fix them. It might take a long time, and it certainly will take a lot of good people standing up and either running for office or supporting those who do, but the vast majority of problems are solvable. The solutions probably won’t be an absolute victory for either side—but they’ll be better than what we have today. That to me is what Truman Scholars, as a living monument to the man who integrated the military, and funded the Marshall Plan, and fought for the New Deal, are all about.

For more on Forrest Dunbar, please check out his website at:  and this article recently published in the Alaska Dispatch,


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